The Clever Koi in Phoenix: Jared Porter and Joe Absolor Offer Great, Sometimes Overcomplicated Cuisine
A wise person once said to me that "expectations are prepaid resentments." The remedy, of course, is to set one's expectations so low that resentment — and disappointment — are unlikely. But low expectations do not factor into the opening of The Clever Koi, one of the most anticipated and talked about restaurant openings in recent memory.
I don't envy the pressure that chefs Jared Porter and Joe Absolor, both formerly of The Parlor, must be feeling. The Clever Koi's menu is both innovative and familiar, offering a progressive ingredient-driven style of Asian food that already has become wildly popular at New York and San Francisco's Mission Chinese Food.
Mostly, they've hit the ground running, and when it's good, it's really good. But with a far reaching-menu of Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese spin-offs, the kitchen occasionally reaches too far, resulting in overcomplicated, over-salted, and overly cute preparations that make you wonder whether The Clever Koi is trying to do too much. That said, the standouts are indicative of a culinary team that has the ability to shine brightly. Order carefully and you're likely to leave very happy.
Take, for example, the Beets/Mizuna/Shaved Cucumber, which is listed as a starter but easily could serve as an entrée salad. Beet salad already is on countless Phoenix menus, but Porter's team serves yellow beets atop peppery mizuna greens with pickled ginger that's complementary, instead of overpowering. A playful spin on croutons, the razor-sharp greens are dotted with tempura bean curd that's crunchy on the outside and luxuriously silky inside. If only all tofu tasted so good unadorned. Similar acclaim goes to another starter, Long Beans/Crispy Duck Tongue, a playful visual spin on green beans with crispy fried onions. While duck tongue might make some squeamish, it tastes like fried duck fat and mellows the spicy XO Aioli on the side. Clever, indeed, although the beans could have benefited from a few minutes less over the heat.
Diners will be mesmerized by the theatrics of bonito flakes that take on a life of their own, reflecting the light from above and dancing around from the heat rising out of the hot and sour broth beneath the Wood Grilled Octopus, while the underlying rice cake gradually deconstructs. Thick chunks of perfectly cooked octopus have a rustic blistered char from the grill that lends a mildly acidic flavor. I almost severed our server's arm when she tried to remove the bowl before I was done.
Steamed buns, a menu category unto itself, are easy to like. Soy Braised Tempura Eggplant offered textural complexity, but the bun itself was dry. Peking Duck with House Bacon is a crowd-pleaser, but is one notch shy of greatness due to a plum jam sugar-bomb in lieu of traditional hoisin sauce.
Massaman Udon/Red Curry/Roasted Duck is reason enough to return to Clever Koi. The kitchen knows its way around the spice cabinet, and this creamy blend of massaman paste, coconut milk, and pickled peppers is a decadent pairing with fat noodles that have just the right amount of koshi, a Japanese measure of firmness. Paired with an Orion beer or a glass of '11 August Kessler Riesling, this is an indulgent dish.
You're making a mistake if you leave without ordering the Schreiner's Lop Chong Bun with Daikon Slaw and Japanese Mustard. Deceptively simple in composition yet dizzyingly complex in flavor, this bun made me seriously question whether I should just pay the bill and walk away, knowing that this was as good as it can get. If you aren't yet familiar with the locally made but Cantonese-inspired dried sausage, let this be your gateway drug. Ballparks should be serving this instead of hot dogs.
The staff likes to tell you how great the dumplings are, and at $8 for an order of four, they really should be. They're not. Smoked "Pig Face" dumplings might be a nod to the offal-inclined, but they were a spongy, tasteless head-scratcher. The only highlight was the accompanying kimchi which, unlike at many Korean restaurants in town, packed a potent punch of chili heat. And the Catfish/Shrimp/Scallop dumplings are a clear case of the kitchen overcomplicating what could have been elegantly simple. Any one of those ingredients could stand on its own merit, but when combined, they made for a bland expression of the lowest common denominator. Some culinary soul-searching is in order.
While the Roasted Pork with House Bacon and Pickled Mustard Greens is a perfectly acceptable bowl of noodles, it won't satiate those looking for classic ramen. Inconsistency strikes again, as the broth was pleasant and full-bodied on one visit and heavy, with an almost gravy-like consistency, on the next. And in every case it was so heavy on the salt that I started to swell before dinner was over. One of my guests likened the flavor to English beef gravy. Yorkshire pudding, anyone?
"Mission Chinese" Kung Pao Pastrami suffers as well from too much salt. That lamb deserved a better fate than as overcooked and dry slivers of leather. Someone in the kitchen wasn't paying attention.
Like the kitchen, which sometimes stumbles because it's trying to do too much, the service is still a work in progress. Although corporate-pedigreed general manager Nick Campisano is omnipresent in his skinny jeans and flannel, the dining room experience suffers from too many servers who clearly aren't communicating with the kitchen. For a menu that practically begs diners to order from each section, the staff was routinely unable to properly course the meal. For a table of two, there is no reason that there should be five dishes brought out at once. And the staff was just as quick to remove plates as they were to serve them.
While the food is of foremost importance, a significant amount of real estate — in the restaurant and on the menu — is dedicated to drinking, and you'll want to imbibe here. I was thrilled with the Koi Reviver, smartly made with refreshing Choya Umeshu plum wine. The Sloe Burn is an excellent version of the rarely seen Sloe Gin Fizz, but made with shiso and Thai bird honey. But if a ride home via Uber isn't in the cards and you're forced to choose just one drink, make it the Donny Wang Fizz. This potent carbonated combination of spiced rum, ginger, and fresh crushed pineapple is as fun to drink as it is to say. There's no better cocktail to enjoy on the expansive patio, especially as temperatures warm up.
It should be noted that I was never offered dessert, and when I inquired about it, I was told that they offer a soft-serve ice cream but that it wasn't available this time. It seems like an afterthought and, besides, soft-serve ice cream? I like clever, but not cute.
In so many ways, The Clever Koi is what we have been waiting for: sophisticated food and drinks that push the Phoenix culinary envelope in a new direction. And by doing it all in an architecturally pleasing setting, with quality ingredients in an urban location at a remarkably affordably price point, it's hard to argue against the notion that this truly is one Clever Koi.
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